BOSTON – (From Wire Service and Staff Reporting) – Even though the buzz surrounding the World Cup of Hockey fizzled away before the final buzzer, it truly was an excellent whistle-wetter for the coming 2016-17 National Hockey League season. Now, a couple of weeks after Sidney Crosby led Canada to that championship — and exactly fourth months since he guided the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Stanley Cup — the puck drops on Wednesday for the 2016-17 campaign.
How long before the currently concussed Crosby is in action and whether he and the Penguins can repeat as champs remains to be seen, but we can guarantee there will be all kinds of wild happenings between now and the next time the Cup is hoisted.
As the curtain raises, here’s how we see the 30 teams stacking up, from best to worst.
1. Tampa Bay Lightning
Reasons for Optimism: A loaded team which reached the conference final last season is essentially the same — despite all the hope in Toronto that Steven Stamkos would bolt for the Maple Leafs. This club has knocked on the door the past two years and is still getting better.
Causes for Concern: Starting goaltender Ben Bishop’s status is a pending unrestricted free-agent, and it’s hard to believe the Lightning will expose backup Andrei Vasilevskiy in the coming expansion draft, making for a possible distraction.
2. Washington Capitals
Reasons for Optimism: The defending runaway Presidents’ Trophy-winning team appears even stronger, with better forward depth to go with a potent attack led by Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, along with a strong defense and top-shelf goalie in Braden Holtby.
Causes for Concern: If Kuznetsov takes a step back after his breakout season or backup goalie Philipp Grubbauer can’t take enough of a load off Holtby for him to be in top form come playoffs, the Caps could stumble.
3. Pittsburgh Penguins
Reasons for Optimism: Other than the fact they are essentially the same team which won the Cup? This is a deep team up front with a better-than-advertised blueline brigade and strong goaltending.
Causes for Concern: Crosby’s concussion comes with uncertainty, even if he returns right away. Last spring’s surprise in goal, Matt Murray, is nursing a hand injury from the World Cup, defensemen Kris Letang and Olli Matta have unsettling injury histories and that Stanley Cup hangover may come into play.